Writing Audio Drama offers a comprehensive and intelligent guide to writing sound drama for broadcasting and online. This book uses original research on the history of writing radio plays in the UK and USA to explore how this has informed and developed the art form for more than 100 years.
Audio drama in the context of podcasting is now experiencing a global and exponential expansion. Through analysis of examples of past and present writing, the author explains how to create drama which can explore deeply psychological and intimate themes and achieve emotional, truthful, entertaining and thought-provoking impact. Practical analysis of the key factors required to write successful audio drama is covered in chapters focusing on audio play beginnings and openings, sound story dialogue, sustaining the sound story, plotting for sound drama, and the best ways of ending audio plays. Chapters are supported by online resources which expand visually on subjects discussed and point to exemplary sound dramas referenced in the chapters.
This textbook will be an important resource for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students taking courses such as Podcasting, Radio, Audio Drama, Scriptwriting, and Media Writing.
The content of all the companion web-pages for this project is in the process of development, and completion is expected 31st December 2023 following the publication of the printed book 31st March 2023. Many thanks for your patience and consideration.
This is a webpage providing updates and additions for Chapter 2 ‘The Psychology of Writing and Listening’ from the book Writing Audio Drama by Tim Crook, published by Routledge in 2023
Analysis of the research and writing into the psychology of writing and listening to radio plays by the BBC’s first Director of Drama Productions R E Jeffrey, how and why the first successful radio plays produced by the BBC dramatized events in darkness with people in trapped scenarios. These included Gertrude Jennings’ Five Birds in a Cage (people trapped in a London underground lift) and Richard Hughes’ Danger (people trapped down a coal mine in Wales), and Reginald Berkeley’s The Dweller in the Darkness where a ghost attacks and murders somebody at a séance when the lights go out.
Extracts selected and analysed in the printed text for the purposes of criticism and review, scholarship and learning.
BBC Written Archives.
Analysis on page 26, paragraph 1:
The amazing advantage of listening, without sight, to words which are arranged to build emotion-compelling situations, is that every person places the emotion in a setting fitted to, or known by, him. Thus the emotion becomes a power inter-acting with a personal experience. Here the artificiality is entirely done away with, and if the ability of the speakers is of a really high order, the emotion of the situation is universally accepted, – it becomes a personal picture adapted to the mentality of the individual and assumes a reality which can be far greater than any effect at present provided on an ordinary stage. This is but a development of Shakespeare’s idea that curtains of unostentatious appearance should be used for backgrounds. His intuitive knowledge of psychology was particularly true.
(Jeffrey/BBC Written Archives c 1926:2)
Analysis on page 26, paragraph 2:
Almost all of us have, consciously or sub-consciously, a strong sense of the dramatic. The hidden books of our lives are, for the best part, made up of pages full of dramatic incident. We have all been thrilled by joy, fear, agony, love, hate, inspiration, anger, passion, and other emotions … although we have never actually been in a disaster at sea, our sub-consciousness will supply a person analogy, if we have ever passed through a moment’s experience which prompted the feeling of fear of death, or steadfast courage, or resignation … Not only is this feeling supplied by sub-conscious analogy but an imaginative scene is also provided – it being mentally impossible to experience an emotion without also conceiving a personally acceptable situation in which to set it.
Five Birds In A Cage by Gertrude Elizabeth Jennings (1877–1958).
Analysis on Page 28, paragraph 4:
The sound of ascending lift is heard, and suddenly stopped; then a voice, SUSAN, the Duchess of Wiltshire’s.)
SUSAN. Oh, the lights have gone out! We’ve stopped. Why have we stopped?
[The curtain, now up, shows the stage to be in darkness.]
Why have we stopped, liftman?
LIFTMAN. Dunno, lady.
SUSAN. Why have the lights gone out?
LIFTMAN. Dunno, lady.
SUSAN. Well! Strike a match somebody. I do so hate being in the dark. Don’t be so helpless, Leonard! A match!
LEONARD. I’m sorry, Susan dear, I haven’t one.
SUSAN. Has anyone else?
Analysis on Page 29, paragraph 1:
The scene represents a tube lift, broadside on. The wall is covered with framed advertisements, and has a bench running along it. The gates, one at each end, are set at an angle. There is an electric light in the ceiling (C.), and two oil-lamps hang on nails near each gate. The lift measures 8 feet deep by 17 feet wide. Any difficulty with regard to gates can be overcome by obtaining two pieces of garden trellis painted black, or by nailing long narrow laths of wood criss-cross. The left-hand gate should be made to open. The two backings outside the gates (representing the funnel of the tube) should be neutral in colour. The unpainted back of a scene answers the purpose. When the curtain rises the scene is in total darkness. At first cue for lights a good light is thrown on the scene from behind L. hand gate; second cue light is thrown from R. hand gate; third cue light from electric bulb at top, or if not practicable, full lights.
(As the curtain is rising…
Analysis on Page 30, paragraph 1:
(A match is now struck by Bert, and a tube lift is dimly visible in which are four passengers and the LIFTMAN) (BERT is extreme L. NELLY sits L., SUSAN C., LEONARD, R.C., LIFTMAN, R.)
SUSAN. Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. But aren’t we going on? What has happened, liftman?
LIFTMAN. Dunno, lady.
SUSAN: (to the hearers). These men never know ! (Graciously to BERT.) You—
Mr. – er – do you know what’s wrong?
BERT. No, mum – can’t say I do.
SUSAN. Of course, it’s perfectly useless to ask you, Leonard!
LEONARD. Of course dear. (Crosses L.) (To BERT) After you. (Offers BERT cigarette.)
LIFTMAN. No smoking in the lift.
LEONARD. No, of course not. (Blows out match.)
SUSAN: There, it’s out.
LEONARD. Don’t be frightened, Susan.
(LIFTMAN gets lamp from R.)
SUSAN. I’m not in the least frightened. I’m merely very much annoyed. Why don’t we go on? You know I shall be late for dinner. Why didn’t I take a taxi?
(The LIFTMAN lights a lamp.)
There ! (Pause.) He had a lamp all the while.
LEONARD. (crosses R. to LIFTMAN.) Do these lifts ever stop?
LIFTMAN. No, sir.
SUSAN. What a question ! Can’t you see they stop ?
(The LIFTMAN turns up lamp.)
LEONARD. I can’t see anything. (Lights go half up.)
(The lamp now burns brightly, and shows SUSAN, a handsome, smart woman of thirty, very well dressed in a gown that does up at the back; LORD PORTH, a well-dressed, good-looking man; BERT, a handsome young workman with a bag of tools; and NELLY, a pretty, fragile-looking young girl, who is carrying a large cardboard box.)
SUSAN. That’s a little better ! Now, put the thing right, liftman, and let’s get on.
LIFTMAN. ‘Tain’t nothing ter do with me, lady; I ain’t stopped it, nor can’t put it right.
SUSAN. You ain’t stopped it ! I mean–Well, what’s the matter with the silly lift?
LEONARD. I don’t think the man knows, dear.
SUSAN. (lowering her voice). Don’t call me dear, Lord Porth. I don’t even know why you’re in this lift ! Most undignified ! And you know perfectly well that if we hadn’t broken down we shouldn’t have been speaking to each other at all.
Analysis on Page 32, paragraph 1:
SUSAN (pushes him back.) All right, all right, all right. (Slight pause.) Being a duchess has never prevented me from studying human nature. I travel third class, I go in buses, even in trams. And so you see! Besides, I am a Socialist. I don’t think these distinctions should exist. I consider myself and that young person quite … (Looking at NELLY.)
LEONARD (moving C.) Susan!
SUSAN. Yes, I do, Leonard. That young person and myself quite the same— and as to you, Leonard, and that gentleman – well, the only difference between you is that he can light a lamp and you can’t.
Analysis on Page 32, paragraph 5:
SUSAN. That wasn’t a speech, and don’t call me dear. It makes me prickle when I think of what you are, Leonard.
So useless, So very, very useless. You’re nothing but a shop window. You have a straight nose, you have a manner, and-well-you look intelligent, but what use are you? If I had married you how ashamed I should have felt! What a failure as a husband! Worse than my first!
LEONARD. Still, dear, one doesn’t marry people for their behaviour in lifts. A comparatively small part of one’s life is spent in lifts.
SUSAN. Really! At this rate it seems to me a very large part! (Looks at BERT.) That young man is strangely decorative, isn’t he? He reminds me of a picture by Millet.
LEONARD. Yes, “Bubbles.”
SUSAN. I did not say Millais. Mother Earth, and all that sort of thing. That’s what we all need. We shall never rise by machinery.
Analysis on Page 33, paragraph 3:
NELLY. Why don’t you go, then?
NELLY. (pointing at LEONARD, who has fallen asleep, his mouth open). Well, send your young man.
SUSAN. That’s not my young man.
NELLY. It’s all to please your vanity, that’s what it is. (Shaking LEONARD.) Are you goin’ to let her do it?
LEONARD. This lady does what she pleases with all of us.
SUSAN. Very nicely put, Leonard. This young person is a little over excited.
NELLY. (crosses R.). It’s selfish— it’s cruel. I hate ladies. I never want to be a lady as long as I live— never! (Crosses L.)
Analysis on Page 33, paragraph 4:
(A loud, hollow echo of voices is heard.)
SUSAN. What is that terrible noise?
NELLY. He’s fallen !
LIFTMAN. No ‘e ain’t.
SUSAN. There it is again. What is it, Leonard? What is it?
LEONARD. (R.C.) It sounds like a cow on the line.
SUSAN. (C.) Absurd !
LEONARD. I didn’t say it was a cow on the line.
LIFTMAN. He’s a-coming up.
NELLY. Oh, I’m so glad !
SUSAN. Here he is ! Well, well!
Analysis on Page 34, paragraph 2:
SUSAN. Oh, my dear friends, this is a wonderful example of Brotherhood. Here we are, four of us, in this little cage-four of us who half an hour ago didn’t even know each other
LEONARD.I knew you, Susan.
SUSAN. Don’t call me dear!
LEONARD. I didn’t, dear.
SUSAN. And in a few minutes we shall all perish together.
LEONARD. I sincerely hope not.
SUSAN. Hand in hand we will face this ordeal together. (Holds out a hand to each man. LEONARD takes it. She pulls it away.)
BERT. You’ll excuse me, mum, but if I’m to face anything hand in hand with anyone, it’s with this young lady. She’s out of my class, I know—I’m only a working man— she’s got good pluck, a kind heart, and a pretty face, and she could do better, but she’s my choice to walk out with, and I don’t care who knows it.
LEONARD. Hear, hear!
SUSAN.(haughtily.)I wasn’t proposing to walk out with you. This is no moment for walking out. I wish it were !
BERT. Well, anyway, if there’s going to be an accident I’ll face it with ‘er. (To NELLY.) What d’you say ?
NELLY. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid with you.
SUSAN. Has it really come to this? Have I to die with Leonard?
LEONARD. Well, dear, you wouldn’t do the other thing.
Analysis on Page 34, paragraph 5:
SUSAN. Saved ! Then we’re not going to be killed ! Oh, what a mercy !
LEONARD. I must say I was in a bit of a funk, Susan dear.
SUSAN. Don’t call me dear ! How fortunate it’s all turned out so well, isn’t it? Most fortunate. Where are the bags and parasols and things I had with me—oh, there they are! Gather them all up, Leonard. (He gives her her handbag and parasol.)You shall come home with me, Leonard—as far as my door. I’m still feeling very shaky, you know—
oh, very, very shaky! Let’s get out. (Suddenly remembers BERT and NELLY.) Good evening. Now, you’ll bring my dress around as quickly as possible, don’t delay. I shall make no complaint this time.
(LIFTMAN climbs in.)
Ah ! Here’s Horace! Well, Horace, the danger is really over, I suppose?
LIFTMAN. Danger mum ? You ain’t been in no more danger than a barrel of bloaters. [a type of whole cold-smoked herring.]
SUSAN. Bloaters indeed !
LIFTMAN. ‘Ere, what’s this ? (Taking extinguisher from LEONARD.) That’s agin ‘ the regilations ! You ought to know better’n that. (Hangs it up.)
LEONARD. (closing gates and calling down shaft). All right, go ahead. No smoking in the lift.
(Noise of lift.)
A Comedy of Danger by Richard Hughes (1900 – 1976).
A new version of this original 1924 production was made by BBC Radio Drama in 1973 to mark the 50 year anniversary of its broadcast. It can be listened to via the Internet Archive site. It was rebroadcast by BBC Radio 4 Extra 12th February 2023.
Jack … Christopher Good
Mary … Carol Marsh
Mr. Bax … Carleton Hobbs
with: John Atterbury, Henry Davies, Rochard Parry, John Rebs, Eilian Wyn. Directed by Raymond Raikes.
A production of Comedy of Danger was made by CBS for the first episode of its Columbia Workshop series July 18th 1936.
Analysis on Page 37, paragraph 7:
JACK. There must be nearly a thousand feet between us and the daylight. It’s not surprising it’s a bit dusky!
MARY. I didn’t know there could be such utter blackness as this, ever. It’s so dark, it’s as if there never was such a thing as light anywhere. Oh, Jack, it’s like being blind!
(Hughes 1928: 176)
Analysis on Page 38, paragraph 1:
MARY. Oh, this is fun! I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. Won’t I make daddie’s flesh creep!
[A distant explosion, with a long echo, swelling in volume.]
JACK. Good God ! Mary !
MARY. Oh, Jack! Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack!
JACK. Quiet, you little fool ! Let go! you’re throttling me! Let go of me!
[Another explosion nearer, followed by the hiss of water.]
MARY. Oh, the dust! It’s choking me! I can’t breathe! Oh!
JACK. Stop screaming, you! How can you expect to be able to breathe if you’re screaming all the breath out of your body? Quiet!
[Voices heard singing: “Ar hyd y Nos”.]
MARY: That must be the others. They can’t be very far off. Let’s call to them.
BAX: Sound carries a long way in a tunnel. But listen.
Gad ! those chaps have courage.
JACK. You’re finding some good in the Welsh, then, after all?
[The roar of water gets louder.]
MARY. The echo’s getting louder !— Oh, Jack, it isn’t an echo ! It’s water! The mine’s flooding ! We’ll be drowned !
Analysis on Page 38, paragraph 2:
BAX. I wish I had the faith of those chaps, sir. It’d make dying easy.
MARY. Oh, Jack, I don’t want to die yet! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.
BAX. It has got to come some time, young lady; isn’t it better for it to happen now, in your lover’s arms? Death might have parted you two, instead of which he’s simply joining you closer together.
MARY. [wailing] I want to live!
Analysis on Page 38, paragraph 3:
BAX. Pull yourself together, sir! Keep control !
JACK. It’s all right, Bax. I’m not going off my nut. I mean what I say. What do you think I’ve got to live for, besides myself and Mary ? Why, my work! If it wasn’t for that, Bax, I’d go to death without caring a tuppenny damn! I’d die just for the fun of the thing to see what it felt like.
Analysis on Page 38, paragrphs 5 and 6:
BAX. [hoarsely] Help ! help ! I can’t die. I won’ die ! I’m an old man—I won’t, I won’t !
JACK. Hold yourself in, you old coward!
MARY. Poor Mr. Bax ! I’m quite calm now; I won’t mind dying a bit.
JACK. Nor do I—now it’s so close.
BAX. Help me ! Help ! Help! Help !
MARY. It’s no good, Mr. Bax ; no one can possibly hear us. The only thing is to keep calm. It won’t be long now.
BAX. Oh, help! Help ! Help!
Analysis on Page 39, paragraph 2:
MARY (sharply). Hello! What’s happened?
JACK. The lights have gone out!
MARY. Where are you ?
[Pause. Steps stumbling.]
MARY. Where ? I can’t find you.
JACK. Here. I’m holding my hand out.
MARY. I can’t find it.
JACK. Why, here !
Analysis on Page 39, paragraph 3:
BAX [distant, muttering]. Of all the incompetent idiots, turning the lights off just when a party of visitors were seeing the place! Call this a coal-mine ! A damned, dark rabbit-hole I call it, a rotten rat-hole, a dratted, wet, smelly drain-pipe…The dithering fools !
BAX. Well, if you want to make a scene, you shall have one, sir ! D’you think it is any easier for the old to die than the young? I tell you it’s harder, sir, harder! Life is like a trusted friend, he grows more precious as the years go by. What’s your life to mine? A shadow, sir ! Yours, twenty-odd years of imbecile childhood, lunatic youth; the rest a mere rosy presumption of the future ! Mine, sixty solid years of solid, real living; no mere rosy dream ! Do you think it is as easy for me to leave my solid substance as you to leave your trumpery shadow ?
Analysis on Page 39, paragraph 4, and page 40, paragraph 1:
JACK. She’s fainted.
BAX. Never mind ‘ pass her up— she’ll be all right.
VOICES. Pass the bight of the rope round her shoulders !
BAX. Well, she’s had the thrill she wanted, all right !— All right above there ? Have you got her ?
VOICES. Ri—ight. Now the next.
JACK. Up you go, quick, Mr. Bax. The water’s still rising !
BAX. No, my boy, after you ; you’re more value in the world than I am.
JACK. Nonsense, sir! After you. You’re an older man than I am. Quick, sir, or there won’t be time!
BAX. You’ve got Mary to think of— now, Jack.— Haul away above there!
JACK. No, no ! Lower me ! It’s me you’re hauling up, and it ought to be Bax !
VOICES. We’ll have you up first; there’s no time to waste. Right?
JACK. I’m all right. Lower away again. Below there, Bax! Catch hold. Have you got it? [Pause.] Bax ! Bax !— Good God, he’s gone !
Companion Website Resources for Chapter 2 Page 45
- Additions and Updates for Chapter 2 The Psychology of Writing and Listening
- R E Jeffrey Pioneer Science Fiction Audio Playwright
- Gertrude E Jennings – BBC’s Pioneering One Act Playwright
- Richard Hughes – Playwright and Novelist
- The Radio Plays of Reginald Berkeley
- Eric Fraser Radio Drama Artist and Illustrator
Review and appreciation of The Comedy of Danger in Popular Wireless for February 1923
The Radio Times would not be published until much later in 1923 and the weekly periodical providing the most feature coverage of the BBC’s radio stations at the time was Popular Wireless originally set up in 1922 to cater for the very large number of people in wireless and radio societies devoted to building their own radio transmitters and receivers and communicating by Morse Code and speech as far as they were able to.
The magazine’s writer was called ‘Ariel’ and reported on ‘Behind the Scenes at 2LO during the recent broadcast drama.” 2LO was the call sign for the BBC’s London radio station.
‘Before the broadcasting of the radio drama “A Comedy of Danger,” listeners-in who suffered from neurasthenia were advised to switch off for twenty-five minutes as a “play was about to be performed of a Grand Guignol character.” Those who wished to listen were advised to switch off the lights, in order to get the right atmosphere.
The play, however, was produced in a brightly lit room, although the broadcast effects were very realistic and provided a real thrill for thousands of listeners.
I was one of few who watched the secret devices which produced the sounds of thunder and rushing water.
Mr. Whiteman, who was in charge, sat on the stone steps outside the studio door with the lines of the play and tele-phones on, to follow the action of the drama.
Just below the steps was a large table over which a sandpaper sheet was laid, and beside the table was a sieve containing thousands of lead shots. When the sieve was moved it produced the sound of rushing water, and the sandpaper, when scraped by a piece of wood, gave the effect of the mine being flooded. Near by was a large drum, similar to a water wheel, and over this was fixed a piece of American cloth. This device is known as the “wind machine” or, as the stage hands call it, a “breezer.”
I was fortunate enough to be near by when a gun was fired, and the noise in the studio was terrifying and made us all deaf for some time after.
Having described the effects I will briefly relate what was going on in the studio. The characters played by Joyce Kennedy, Kenneth Kent, and H.R. Hyneth had received special rehearsals and instructions from the author of the play, Mr. Richard Hughes, several days prior to the actual performance. Mr. Hughes assisted in the effects. The Gwalia Singers were singing two Welsh hymns outside the second door of the studio. They also called out during the performance, through glass lamp chimneys thus giving the hollow, far-away effect.
A “Grand Performance.”
The most amusing device to produce distant sound was the simple bucket, through which the author and another shouted giving the effect of voices coming from a distant quarter of the mine.
The artistes rushed backwards and forwards behind the microphone with their parts or scores in their hands. This continual movement was, of course, necessary and performed according to the noises.
The next morning I received a letter from Miss Ellen Terry, the great tragedienne, saying: “No greater performance have I ever heard which has produced such a thrill on an unseen audience. Another step forward has been taken by the B.B.C.”‘
Radiotorial for Popular Wireless February 1923- celebrating the achievement of A Comedy of Danger The historical significance of this editorial in the announcement and organisation of what appears to be the first British Radio Play competition.
The broadcasting of Mr. Richard Hughes’ play, “A Comedy of Danger,” opens up a new field of experiment for the B.B.C. But after listening to the play I could not help wondering if the field for Radio Drama was not rather restricted, and not as fertile as one would at first believe.
Mr Hughes’ play was successful because it was founded on an idea which lent itself admirably to the limitations of wireless. The correct atmosphere could only be obtained by sitting in the dark; in fact it was the only atmosphere in which one could really feel the dramatic potentialities of the theme Mr. Hughes had built his play on. Those three voices, supposedly the voices of a girl and two men trapped in a coal mine, issued from the loud speaker with terrifying reality, and the room being in darkness the effect was, to say the least of it, sepulchral in the extreme. But it “got over” in houses where listeners turn out the lights, and so obtain the atmosphere of being buried alive in a tomb ?
And how many situations can ingenious authors devise which will enable listeners to partly create the necessary theatrical atmosphere to partly create the necessary theatrical atmosphere- very necessary when a play is restricted to dialogue and “off-stage” effects ?
The problems is a fascinating one, and its solution by no means easy. On the face of it, it looks as though the number of Radio Dramas capable of “getting over” with the full effect of Mr. Hughes’ play will be rather limited; but the BBC and those who labour for them, are nothing if not ingenious, and it will be interesting to see how far this Radio Drama business can be carried with full success.
Adaptations from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories might prove suitable for Radio dramas; notably, the tales entitled “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The fall of the House of Usher.”
The last story is rich in “off stage” effects; the moaning of the wind, the inglorious twanging of a guitar, the creaking of a coffin-lid; the clanging of the doors of the vault as the lady who was buried alive manages to force her way out, and lastly the excited shrieks of her brother and the bursting of the thunderstorm. Yes, that story is rich in Radio Grand Guignol situations; but the nerves of listeners-in must be considered!
Again, take that wonderful story be Morley Roberts, the story of “Billy Be Damsel.” With but few modifications that story would make a fine Radio play. It is mostly dialogue, and depends for its effect on the weird and terrifying experiences as related by a mad castaway sailor, picked up by a sailing ship.
And, doubtless, readers of “P.W.” can think of many good ideas for Radio plays. It would be interesting to see their efforts as Radio play-writing, so I will offer a Prize of £5 for the best Radio Drama idea sent to me, not later than February 25th. Address all MSS to the Editor, Popular Wireless, the Fleetway House, London E.C.4. I reserve the right to publish the plot of the play which wins the prize : the dramatic rights remain the author’s. THE EDITOR